'The X-Files' postmortem: Darin Morgan talks conspiracy theories, the Mandela Effect, and forehead sweat
Warning: This post contains spoilers for “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” episode of The X-Files.
Since bringing The X-Files back to the airwaves in 2016, series creator Chris Carter has introduced new wrinkles into its complicated mythology, as well as new dimensions to Fox Mulder and Dana Scully’s long history as paranormal investigators and PDA-avoidant lovers. Longtime X-Files yarn-spinner Darin Morgan, on the other hand, is using the show’s return to talk about what The X-Files means to him. The fan favorite writer/director behind some of the standout episodes of the series’ original run — including “Humbug” and the Emmy-winning “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” — was also the creative force responsible for the jewel in Season 10’s crown, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” That highly self-aware, and hugely hilarious, installment took aim at monster-movie conventions, as well as longstanding X-Files clichés. “‘Were-Monster’ was me looking back and asking, ‘What does it all mean?’” Morgan confirms to Yahoo Entertainment. “What does the show mean to me, now, as an older person?”
His new episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” is just as playfully meta-textual as its predecessor, only this time around, he’s resolutely focused on the here and now. Having noted, with no small alarm, how conspiracy theories have gone mainstream in American political discourse, Morgan takes viewers on a deep dive into conspiracies large and small all framed around the Internet phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect: that thing where people collectively misremember a major or minor piece of history. (Remember that whole brouhaha about a non-existent Sinbad genie movie? That’s the Mandela Effect in action.)
In “Forehead Sweat,” Mulder and Scully encounter a conspiracy nut named Reggie Something (Childrens Hospital scene-stealer Brian Huskey) who claims to have inside knowledge about an elaborate conspiracy masterminded by a “Dr. They” (played by Stuart Margolin) and involving a Donald Trump-esque alien overlord. Just as they’re ready to dismiss his raving, he reveals that he also created the X-Files and rode shotgun with them on their classic missions. Cut to a brilliantly assembled montage where Reggie pops up in vintage X-Files clips, as well as a re-edited version of the beloved credits sequence. “That was a way of creating a Mandela Effect for the audience while they’re watching the episode,” Morgan explains. Lest we all fall prey to the Mandela Effect, we collected Morgan’s entirely accurate memories of making what may become his final X-Files episode.
Yahoo Entertainment: Have you had a long fascination with the Mandela Effect?
Darin Morgan: Not really, to be honest with you. I stumbled across it on the Internet and went, “Oh what’s this?” Then I started going through the list of all the Mandela Effect things to see if they apply to me, which none of them do. But the idea appealed to me because I have a really bad memory, and if you misremember something on a small cultural level that’s not significant, it can drive you crazy. It’s like, “If you misremember this, what else aren’t you remembering correctly?” And then how that thought can lead to insanity, if that makes any sense.
Do you find that X-Files fans have a version of the Mandela Effect about the show’s original run — that they remember it differently than you do?
Yeah, I think there’s some of that. When I did “Were-Monster” last season, a bunch of people online commented that The X-Files never did comedy episodes. And I went, “Wait, what are you talking about? That was my whole career!” [Laughs]
Chris Carter told us that one of the biggest differences he sees between the show’s original run and today is the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that were once considered fringe. Is that true for you as well?
Yeah, that’s one of the biggest changes, and one of the things that I wanted to touch upon in the episode. Mulder now ultimately works for someone who is more of a conspiracy nut than he is. If you think back to when we originally did the show [in the ’90s] and say, “Twenty years from now, you’re going to have a president that actually believes crazier things than Mulder,” it would seem weird. And it seems weird now, but it’s the reality we’re dealing with.
I laughed at the end of the episode when the alien leader descends from his UFO on an escalator, mimicking the way that Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015. Were you concerned about that being too on the nose?
Originally, I was just planning on having the alien quote Trump, but then I thought, He has to descend somehow — why not an escalator? I put it in the script thinking we probably wouldn’t be able to do it, and at the first production meeting I asked if it was even possible. The crew said, “Sure,” and it worked out fine. I don’t know if you can say it’s too on the nose when you’ve got an alien descending from a UFO! Also, if you’re not too obvious, than nobody gets your references. We had some people on the Canadian crew who said, “You know that some of these lines are stuff Trump has actually said?” And I was like, “Yes, we know.” So you can never be too obvious.
It’s clear that you’ve been doing a lot of worrying about the state of the country. Was writing this episode cathartic at all?
Yeah, for me it was. There’s that line in the beginning where Mulder says he feels like he’s done nothing the past year but watch TV and worry that the country is going insane. I felt similar to that, so it was nice to finally express what I felt. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind, but you do get it off your chest.
You have a very distinctive way of writing Scully and Mulder — Scully in particular. She’s often snappier and more sarcastic in your episodes than she is in the rest of the series. Are you ever concerned about the characterizations seeming inconsistent?
At this point, Scully knows that Mulder’s a nut, but what can she do about it? She’s stuck with him. I know it’s weird, but I consider my episodes as being part of the rest of the series. They are slightly different in my episodes, but that’s because the stories I’m telling are different. And I think that’s OK. We all act differently in different situations, and I don’t see why it should be any different with fictional characters. But some people do have a problem handling that, and I can understand why it can drive them a little bit crazy.
It does feel like your approach appeals to Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. They’re obviously having a lot of fun in both “Were-Monster” and “Forehead Sweat.”
They both know what I’m going for now and like it — or at least tolerate it! [Laughs] They look at it as a challenge and know that it’s not the same thing they did the week before or will do the week following. David came up with some funny bits in this one. In the scene at the end where the alien gives them the book of answers and he nods a little — he did that on his own, and it made me laugh out loud. Gillian added a “Wait, what?” to another scene that I had to cut out. They both came up with funny things like that, some of which I had to cut for time.
In “Were-Monster,” you were able to give lifelong X-Files super-fan Kumail Nanjiani a featured role. Was Brian Huskey also an X-phile?
I don’t think Brian was aware of the show, or at least he wouldn’t consider himself a fan. I had to explain to him what was going on in all the old clips he appears in! I didn’t write the part of Reggie with him in mind, but he was someone I immediately thought of because I’d been a fan of his for a while. He’s really funny and looks the part. I think he did a great job.
The Reggie-enhanced version of the opening credits sequence reminded me a lot of the “Poochie the Dog” episode of The Simpsons. Did you take any inspiration from that?
I wasn’t thinking of Poochie, although that’s one of my favorite Simpsons episodes! Doing the title sequence that way was a way of showing people the Mandela Effect. What if this show that you’re watching, and that you’ve watched in the past, suddenly had another character in it that you don’t remember? What would your reaction be?
Where did the idea of Dr. They come from? He’s got such a memorable look — particularly the red circles under the eyes.
He grew out of the idea that all conspiracies are about a “they” — the people who control the information and don’t want you to know things. So I thought it would be funny if the guy were actually called “They.” One of the books I was reading talked about how different countries have different master criminals: Germany has Dr. Mabuse, England has Moriarty, and France has Fantomas. There was a painting of the latter where he’s wearing a mask and a top hat, and standing over Paris. I wanted to create that kind of giant arch villain, and thought that he should have a little robber mask like the Riddler or something. Originally, the character was also going to be Russian, so that got around to Gorbachev and his birthmark, and I said, “What if he had a birthmark in the shape of a robber mask!” because that’s the kind of guy I am. But I think it works — it’s definitely an interesting look.
I loved the place where Mulder confronts Dr. They — a park surrounded by laughing statues. Is that a real location?
Yeah, it’s a park in Vancouver right by the harbor. I’ve worked on a lot of shows that shoot in Vancouver, and on my day off I always walk to that park, because I find the statues fascinating. There’s this inscription from the artist [Chinese painter and sculptor Yue Minjun] saying that he hopes people enjoy them, and it’s true! You watch people interact with these statues, and they become really funny and start laughing. My thinking was that because so much of this episode takes place in underground parking garages, since that’s where conspiracies are talked about, when the conspiracy is over, it should be someplace out in the open, and I immediately thought of that statue park. It would have been better if it was a sunny day, but it’s Vancouver — you take what you can get! And thanks to those statues it was impossible to come up with a bad shot. It’s almost as if they’re commenting on the scene itself.
Gillian Anderson has said that she’s absolutely done with The X-Files after this season. Do you similarly look at “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” as being your final comment on the series?
The last three episodes that I’ve written, I’ve written them from the assumption that it’ll be the last one I ever do. And this one does feel like it could be the sendoff to the series. If the show came back, whether it’s with Gillian or however they’d do it, there’s always more stories you can tell. But if this is the final one, I’d be happy with it being my final statement on the show.
That adds a real poignancy to Scully’s final line: “I want to remember how it all was.”
Yeah — that was intentional. [Laughs]
The X-Files airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
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